Cremation in Bali

Cremation Ceremony in Bali: Releasing The Soul

In Bali, the family at my homestay invited me to a Balinese cremation ceremony, one of the most important events in a Balinese life.

After expressing my condolences, I was met with a perplexingly blank stare. He said that, yes, it is sad to lose a family member, but the cremation ceremony is a way to celebrate that loved one’s life and consecrate their soul, so it can be born again. This centuries old tradition is one of the last payments a child makes to their parents. One with a strong obligation to do properly.

The Balinese believe that the soul is eternal, returning to earth repeatedly, working through its karma, until it achieves final peace. The ceremony liberates the soul from the bounds of the body, preparing it for either rebirth, the Hindu cycle of reincarnation, or final peace. The Balinese believe that if the ceremony is not conducted properly, the soul will not be able to find its proper place in the afterlife and will haunt living relatives.

The Cremation Ceremony, Bali

The cremation ceremony I was invited to, also called Ngaben, or Pitra Yadyna, was for the grandfather who lived in the family compound across the street from my Ubud homestay. The gentleman that invited me was going to part of the event, helping to carry the bull in the procession.

He explained that the ceremony can be very, very expensive. So expensive, that families may need to save for years after a death. This means the body may be buried and later dug up for the cremation.

This ceremony, which was in 2016, cost around 150,000,000 rupiah (about $11,000-12,000USD). As the average salary for someone in Ubud was about $4,000/year then, this was a huge sum of money. The person I talked with expressed his concern for generations to be able to continue this tradition as it is such a huge financial burden, yet explained there is still a very strong obligation to do so.

The Morning Of The Event

I arrived at the event early, standing close to the massive constructions that would be part of the ceremony. The men were busy with final preparations for the procession, children were playing around, and on, the massive bull, and locals were busy talking with friends and neighbors and taking pictures. There was definitely excitement in the air. Sorry my photo is so dark!

Early morning prep for cremation in Bali
Early Morning

I admired the massive structures created for the ceremony by artists. First looking at the opulent detail on the brilliantly colored tower, or bade. The tower is used to transport the body and the ‘offerings’ to the cremation center.

The number of ‘roofs’ on the tower signify the importance of the person. This tower had 9. The maximum number of roofs, 11, is reserved for royalty. As the number if roof is always uneven, he was as important as one can be without actually being royalty.

The tower carries the coffin in a cremation in Bali
The Tower, Or Bade

The massive bull, or lembu, with its elaborate black felt, or faux fur, dramatically set off all the gold embellishments around its neck. This structure holds the coffin during the cremation. The children seemed to love playing among the hooves of this bull while we were all waiting for the cermony.

The structures are placed on a substructure of bamboo poles (below), to help carry them to the cremation center. Each requiring many men.

The grid substructure used in cremation in Bali
The Grid Substructure

Confusing The Evil Spirits

After about an hour of prep and conversation, the men picked up the bull and the tower and carried them in the opposite direction of the cremation center. This is an old tradition, done to confuse the evil spirits, as this way they cannot find the deceased.

Confusing The Evil Spirits

It also took some time as the tower was taller than the power lines. Special poles hold the lines up over the tower.

Moving power lines in cremation in Bali
Confusing The Evil Spirits

Finally, they put the bull and tower back down facing the correct direction.

Preparing For the Procession

The family was busy getting ready for the event. They were talking amongst themselves and with visitors. The lovely Balinese ladies below, dressed in their best, posed for photos.

Family

The deceased had been in the military, so they were here to honor him. There were quite a few military men there, and it took them a while to get into the proper formation. Once lined up, formal speeches were made in his honor.

After the speeches, the offerings and coffin were carried out of the home and placed in the tower for the procession.

The Procession

When everything was in place, the men collectively picked up the grids holding the tower and bull and walked down the narrow lane, turning onto the main street towards the cremation center. We all followed. Although it was ony about a 1/2 mile (1 km) walk, we made slow progress. Especially as all power lines had to be raised for the tower.

The cremation procession in Bali
The Procession

We also stopped occasionally as locals offered to sprinkle the men with water from their hoses…as it was a very hot, humid day. And as we walked, more people joined us.

Arrival At The Cremation Temple, Ubud, Bali

When we arrived at the cremation center, there was already a large crowd waiting for us.

An attendant opened the birdcage hanging on the tower to free the birds. I’m not sure if this symbolizes the freeing of the soul, but think it’s possible. For iurs, he had to literally oull the birds out of the cage and toss them in the air.

Releasing The Birds

Preparing The Body And Soul

The bull was positioned on a special stand and the top and backside were removed for the coffin. The coffin and offerings were removed from the tower and ceremoniously walked around the bull three times (below).

Coffin Circling The Bull

After the coffin was placed inside the bull, the priests cleansed and prepared the body. They then prayed for his soul, wishing it a safe journey. This was a slow process and took some time.

Preparing the body for a cremation in Bali
Preparing The Body

The offerings were placed inside and underneath, the bull.

At this point, there were more speeches from the military. This time, guns fired into the air.

The Release Of The Soul

With all the preparations finally complete, the bull was covered with fuel. When the fire was finally lit, it very quickly became a large blaze.

The is that the fire destroys the physical body, releasing the body’s spirit. It the leaves the body and earth for another form of life. Collectively, friends and family pray this is a release to a better life, or its final resting place in heaven.

Releasing the soul in a cremation in Bali


The entire process for this Bali cremation ceremony, at least to this point, took about 4 hours.

Locals were there with food and drink, and it looked like many would stay for a celebration. Children were busy playing and there was a lot of laughter. Truly a joyous event. I was torn between staying to see what came next and feeling like I should leave, as this part of the ceremony felt more personal to me. As I had not brought any gifts, I didn’t feel right taking their food. Plus, now that the ceremony was over, I was feeling uncomfortable with the still burning bull and coffin. In the end, I decided to leave.

If you visit Bali, and get invited to a cremation ceremony, don’t be shy. You should definitely go! And if you do, please drop a note below.

For more information on cremation ceremonies in Ubud, Bali, click here.

Want To Learn More About Bali?

Ubud, Bali’s capital of arts, dance, and spirituality is a fascinating place to visit. From treasured, ancient temples, to vibrant traditional dance performances, galleries and museums showcasing local artists, many yoga centers, spas, and much more, Ubud is the perfect place to reinvigorate the body and soul. Learn the highlights in Best Things To Do In Ubud: Top Sites And Sacred Places.

There are also several serene rice fields in Ubud. Find out how to slip into these lush, green oasis’s and learn more about Balinese culture and their life-blood crop, rice, in my post Top 4 Ubud Rice Fields Walks.

To learn about a traditional homestay in Ubud, click here. And to read about the cooking class I took here, see my post on my Balinese Cooking Class (YUM)!

To see some of Bali’s more exotic beaches, visit Uluwatu on Bali’s southwestern coast. There are several amazing beaches here located at the base of tropical clifftops, many known for their surfing. But there are also many rooms with amazing views overlooking the Indian Ocean here, as well as great yoga and more delicious food choices.

For an interesting visit to some smaller, more cultural villages in Bali, read about the Small Villages of Munduk and Lovina. They are both a great escape from the more touristy parts of Bali (including Ubud) to see more culture, as well discovering variety of stunning waterfalls and temples.

For an overview of all highlights of Bali, as well as logistics like safety, scams, money matters, and more, see my Ultimate Bali Travel Guide.

Safe Travels!

Hello! I resigned from a corporate career in product development to explore the world. Although my goal was to travel for a year, 8 years later, I’ve been honored to have explored more than 60 gorgeous countries and met some unbelievably amazing people. Our world truly is a beautiful place! Follow me into the gorgeous unknown by subscribing below. You’ll receive details on fabulous destinations, comprehensive travel guides, travel tips and tidbits, and information on travel trends, like experiential, sustainable, and transformational travel. Where is your next gorgeous unknown? Julie

6 Comments

  • Lori Weed

    Thanks for the birthday wishes Julie! We had a gal’s HH to celebrate and everyone said to say hello and they asked for the URL to your blog so now others will be following your fun excursions too. Bummer about your luggage, you’re smart to keep the essentials with you on the plane. Have fun in Amstersdam, I bet the flowers smell amazing! Can’t wait to see where you’re off to next.

    • Julie

      Glad you had a HH….Would have loved to join in…
      The gardens in AMS did smell great!!! They need to ban smoking there though….;)

  • Kerry Dare

    Wow, what a powerful look into other cultures. That is fascinating. I see why you said you could stay a month in Bali. Its a very beautiful area as well. Thank you very much for sharing.

    • Julie

      It is not what I expected…but a very interesting place. I bet it was amazing before all the tourists got here!

    • Julie

      Wish I was there to celebrate you birthday….hope you are doing something fun!

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